It’s 10:46 a.m., and the Roadrunners are on the move.
Eighteen preschoolers have brought an infusion of energy and excitement to the Works Museum in Bloomington, and St. Thomas engineering professor AnnMarie Thomas’ Engineering 171 students are doing their best to keep up.
“Cool! Look it, Kaleb!”
“This is awesome!”
The preschool “Roadrunners” are members of St. Thomas’ Child Development Center (CDC), which works with children between 6 weeks and Kindergarten. Today’s field trip is all about getting a taste of engineering and showing what they enjoy in a museum exhibit; this first interaction is part of a collaboration with Dr. Thomas' class that will play out throughout the rest of spring semester. Dr. Thomas’ students are designing projects for the Works Museum to recreate a specific portion of its offerings. Interacting with CDC kids gives them glimpses into how the young brains of a future exhibits’ clientele work.
“It’s really cool. They have such creative minds. Their ideas are so abstract and out there,” freshman Brian Tierney said. “I’m thinking in realistic terms of how I would want to put something together, and they’re just thinking of what would be awesome.
“It brings out the kid in us,” he added.
The event is just one example of collaborations between college students and the CDC that take place all the time. The CDC, a unique piece of the university’s fabric, is not simply a place parents drop off their children off for the day; for nearly two decades it has provided the ground for educational partnership, mutual respect and lifelong learning.
In the beginning there was some uncertainty: There wasn’t exactly a plethora of blueprints on which to base the plan of housing a child development center when the idea was raised at St. Thomas in the late 1990s. Director Becca Swiler described the faith necessary to get things going when the center opened 17 years ago. It soon became apparent that faith was well-placed.
Founded on the overarching mission of providing the highest quality early education for children and families, it didn’t take long for the opportunities from being associated with a college to show. First, students going into fields traditionally tied to childhood education – teaching, social work, psychology, etc. – have the chance to work with young learners.
“We have found over the years that, without these fabulous student employees, we could not run this program,” Swiler said. “They really help us make this place as great as it is for children.”
Having students exposed to early childhood education is a healthy thing, Swiler said, whether they actually go into a field directly related or not.
“The vast majority of college students here will become parents themselves someday and they’re going to need to understand all of this,” she said. “People will tell you how hard it is (to have children) and how wonderful it is, how it will change your life. You will never truly grasp that until it happens to you, but it’s great for students to have that exposure here.”
Thanks to a strong tradition of the CDC collaborating with research, volunteering endeavors and a huge variety of class projects, students from all over St. Thomas have gained experience.
“There’s hardly a field of study I could think of at UST that hasn’t come to us in 17 years at some point and asked how it connects to their world,” Swiler said. “How does this connect with Catholic Studies? How does this connect with Modern and Classical Languages? They've come from everywhere."
That curiosity – and the willingness of more than 80 young kids to help answer questions – has created a laundry list of meaningful experiences for students from business to communication journalism. Swiler estimated that in any given year the CDC has about 200 St. Thomas students through the center in some capacity, “which takes a tremendous amount of collaboration. That’s been wonderful for us and for them, and we hope it continues for a long time.”
A special place
Part of the added value of the CDC to the St. Thomas community – and higher education in general – is that it is rare: Outside of a similar center at the University of Minnesota, St. Thomas is on a short list of larger universities in Minnesota and beyond with a program like this.
“We draw students from a lot of different schools around the metro,” Swiler said. “We’ve even drawn from outside the state. Last summer we helped a professor from California … who was doing research on human moral development and when we first get ethical and moral values.”
Contributing to the research field goes hand-in-hand with the CDC and is part of the appeal, Swiler said.
“That’s one of the things parents love about this program,” Swiler said, reflected by the lengthy waiting list to get a child enrolled. “They want them involved in educational research, they want to know what’s going on, what their children are learning and what we’re finding.”
“It’s great. It really gives them a range of experiences, which is what learning is all about,” said Virgina Hanson, an employee of 12 years at the CDC. “The kids have these great ideas (when they’re involved with projects with college students and faculty) and they know their ideas are valued. Because they’re in this university setting their ideas are valued that much more. It’s very innovative.”
Back at the Works Museum those valuable ideas are flowing, most commonly expressed in terms of “cool,” wide eyes and open mouths. This same collaboration with Dr. Thomas and her classes started four years ago, leading one student to create an exhibit still featured at the Works Museum.
On top of providing the Engineering 171 class their user expertise (more meetings with the Roadrunners are scheduled in the coming weeks), the CDC kids also will create their own engineering projects. Dr. Thomas will assist in going through a full engineering design process, which last year culminated in a project featuring light-up bricks and wheels, and music shakers made of toilet roll tubes.
“The kids get to do all the testing and experimenting,” Hanson said. “We’ll see where they take us this year.”
Such might be the catchphrase for any and all of the collaborations CDC kids and their college counterparts take part in at St. Thomas. The value of the CDC’s presence can be measured in many ways, not the least of which is the reminder that we all are learning, all the time.
“I’ve always believed the Child Development Center is one of the purest manifestations of the university’s idea that learning is a lifelong endeavor,” Swiler said. “It doesn’t just begin when you walk through the Arches. Learning starts at the beginning of life and hopefully continues until we die.
“We’re all part of a large learning community,” she added. “The depth the Child Development Center can bring to that is a huge thing.”